Will the Super Bowl ever be behind a streaming paywall? This is what it would take

The year is 2045. Fourth week of February. After a grueling 21-week regular season and five playoff rounds, the Super Bowl matchup is set: Buffalo Bills vs. London Jaguars. The NFL anticipates 130 million viewers will watch the game on Netflix, which serves as the exclusive home of the Super Bowl following a multimillion-dollar deal the company signed with the league in 2040.

Those who don’t have a subscription to the streaming service can pay $149 for a one-month trial that includes access to the game via one of Netflix’s 10 Super Bowl Megacast streams. A popular Megacast option will be the Legends Room, where retired players Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and CJ Stroud interact live with viewers while watching the game. Adam Amin, Greg Olsen and Laura Rutledge will broadcast the game on Netflix’s main NFL channel.

Does it sound exaggerated? Maybe it would have been 10 years ago. While a reflection exercise on the NFL Making the Super Bowl a pay-per-view event is nothing new, what is new is the era in which we live. Last month’s first live-streamed exclusive NFL playoff game on Peacock felt like a seismic moment.

Peacock paid $110 million to stream the Kansas City Chiefs’ 26-7 victory over the Miami Dolphins in the AFC wild-card round, in an attempt to boost its 30 million subscriber count. Antenna, a research firm that tracks streaming data, estimated that Peacock had 2.8 million signups during a three-day period around the wild-card game, which averaged 23 million viewers. It was the largest subscriber acquisition time ever measured by Antenna.

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“With the cord-cutting rate exceeding 7 percent, or five million homes disappearing each year, there’s a good chance the Super Bowl will be broadcast on a streaming platform in ‘our’ lifetime,” he said. Michael Nathanson, the co-author of the event. founder and senior managing director of research firm MoffettNathanson, which provides media, communications and technology trends to institutional investors.

NFL officials have repeatedly stated that the league is committed to television broadcasting and wide distribution of the games. Hans Schroeder, the NFL’s executive vice president of media distribution, told reporters last month, including The Athletic, that “you cannot reach 190 million people throughout the year without having a very wide distribution of your content, and that has always been a base for us. … Every one of our games is broadcast on television, at least in their market, and probably 90 percent of our games are broadcast as their primary platform. For us it is still very important.”

Sean McManus, the longtime president of CBS Sports, who will retire from his role at the end of this year, noted that such a conversation cannot occur until this current set of NFL media rights expires. The league’s media rights deals with CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and Amazon are worth about $110 billion and run through the 2033 season.


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“There is no immediate concern,” McManus said. “(NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell has been very candid that broad distribution is part of the reason the NFL is successful. Yes, the NFL expanded with some games on Peacock, including a playoff game. … But when you have 56 million people watching the AFC Championship Game (on CBS), it’s a huge success story. “I can’t speak for Netflix, Amazon or Apple on whether it makes business sense for them to pay hundreds of millions for a playoff game, but I do know that linear television is extremely important to the success of the NFL.”

Along with McManus, David Levy, former president of Turner Sports and now co-CEO of Horizon Sports & Experiences, a sports marketing agency and consultancy, also believes the Super Bowl will remain on broadcast television for years to come.

“Broadcasting and outdoor is still the vehicle with the greatest reach,” Levy said. “You’re always building your next generation of fans and they want the place to have the greatest reach. In thirty years? “I can’t answer that because I don’t know who will be the commissioner of the NFL and who will be the owner of these teams.”

Levy was very positive about the appearance of NFL product on streaming services. But he made an important point: Any streaming service exclusively airing the Super Bowl would need its own production capabilities and enough proof of concept with production elements that the NFL would feel confident putting its biggest property in its hands. That’s not something Netflix or Apple have right now.

“Everyone expects to turn on the TV and watch a Super Bowl,” said Tracy Wolfson, the NFL reporter who calls Sunday’s game for CBS. “I think you alienate those who can’t see it. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more playoff games there, but I think when it comes to the Super Bowl, the important thing is how many eyeballs there are and making sure it’s available for everyone to see.”

Kansas City Chiefs

A Super Bowl behind a streaming paywall seems far-fetched. But 10 years ago, it was hard to imagine a Chiefs-Dolphins playoff game on something called Peacock. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

William Mao, senior vice president of global media rights at Octagon, a sports and entertainment agency, believes it is unlikely that in the next 20 to 25 years we will see a Super Bowl broadcast exclusively on a streaming service in the United States if it is free. . Over-the-air TV penetration (still higher than any video-on-demand subscription base). He said his answer would change only when (or if) a paywall transmitter has a subscriber reach capacity close to today’s outdoor penetration.

“As long as the Super Bowl remains the most-watched live television broadcast by a wide margin, it will continue to be available free-to-air in some form,” Mao predicted. “The aggregation of more than 100 million viewers in a single broadcast remains too big an advertising draw to be exclusively paid, and all signs point to the continued increase in Super Bowl ratings and advertising rates through its distribution current.

“Could there come a point in the future where something else knocks the Super Bowl out of first place? Of course, never say never. But right now the difference between the first and second most watched broadcast in the United States exceeds 60 million viewers. So why would the NFL alter its dominant and extremely lucrative position?

Mao noted that the Super Bowl is unique because it attracts tons of casual viewers. People watch the game for a variety of reasons, including halftime commercial and musical acts. He questioned whether top music artists would continue to perform the halftime show at a low cost if the broadcast was behind a paywall and not guaranteed to reach the same audience. There would be There will also be some people in Congress interested if the NFL took this route.

This discussion seems much more relevant in 2024 because of the Peacock game. We don’t know how many new subscribers will stick with Peacock long-term, and the game didn’t stream 100 percent exclusively because it appeared on broadcast TV in Kansas City and Miami. But the NFL put one of its premium inventory games behind a paywall.

“Peacock’s numbers were strong and the broadcast provided an informational benchmark for future similarly distributed NFL games,” Mao said. “For example, will a 40 percent lower ad load become the norm for streaming games? But there’s still a lot of back and forth between moving one of the many wild card games to a streamer or moving the biggest game of the year. In my opinion, the Super Bowl should be one of the last things to be exclusively behind a paywall in the NFL’s portfolio.”

It’s not easy to set a price for a Super Bowl behind a paywall. Is there a limit to what is by far the most popular community television experience among Americans each year (closer to nine million Canadians)? Going back to the hypothetical beginning of this article: Let’s say Netflix got 30 million new subscriptions for a $149 Super Bowl experience. That is equivalent to almost $4.5 billion. That doesn’t include advertising revenue. There would surely be a big loss of subscribers after the Super Bowl, but there would also be those who would stick with the product and then pay the annual subscription.

“I don’t think the question is about the price of a single game,” Mao said. “If the Super Bowl had a streaming-only future, it would most likely first be part of a broader set of rights.”

When I asked Nathanson about the price, he said it was difficult to determine a definitive figure.

“That’s a good question,” Nathanson said. “How many people paid $6 for a wild card game PPV on Peacock? Obviously it would be multiple (more than that).”

It’s unlikely we’ll see the NFL go this route in the short to medium term. But ask yourself if, back in 2014, you imagined you’d never have to pay to watch an NFL playoff game.

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(Photo of a Super Bowl LVIII promotional display on CBS outside the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)